Not all stories come with happy endings but there is always a scope of writing new ones. With every word written, a seed of new possibility is sown. That’s precisely the kind of script folk artists are composing for themselves today. Enough has been said and done about their dismal fate. The days of mourning their bleak future is a thing of the past. Folk cultures don’t need pity. They need patronage. And we have living legends like Babunath Jogi from the Aughar Nath Jogi community of Pathoda village in Alwar district of Rajasthan, testifying that.
Because of the determined efforts of people like him, India’s musical heritage continues to bask in the glory of its splendour. Babunath is the lone singer in his village. But that’s not a deterrent for him. His music doesn’t even fetch him substantial money but that’s agreeable to him. Never does he once speak of despair. His demeanour amplifies determination. Singing stories and ballads of Surdas, Gorakhnath, Shiva, Gopichand, Raja Bharthari, Heer-Ranjha, along with Kabirvani among other folklores, this veteran vocalist never leaves the side of his philosophy of Ramta Jogi—an ascetic saint on the move with no worldly pleasures. When we met him, and several others like him at the latest edition of Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF)—an annual celebration of Rajasthani and international sounds—held at Jodhpur in October, it seemed that we were living in the flourishing reign of folk glory.
At the RIFF, artistes such as Babunath run the show. “People sometimes pity me for my plight and I don’t understand why,” he says. “We’re the custodians of heritage and there is no greater satisfaction than knowing that.”
The 530-km bus journey from Pathoda to the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur—the festival venue—had left him tired but not defeated. Against the backdrop of the tangerine sun, he sat on a makeshift stage in his signature meringue white turban, ready to sing Shivji Ka Byavla—a song about Shiva’s life journey—in a cyclic pattern unique to this community. “These tales are sung all night but we improvise as per listeners’ interest,” he says.
Babunath is not the only one who has been touched by the winds of change. Artists like Asin Khan Langa, a Sindhi sarangi player, has also seen notable improvement in both his morale and the money he makes. Till five years ago, he wouldn’t sing publicly. “Though he was an accomplished artist, he remained unnoticed. But now, he sings and plays at various public events and is a part of three different international collaborations. Last December, he was among the artists who opened the Kochi Biennale with his ensemble,” says Divya Kumar Bhatia, the Festival Director and Producer.
Kamaicha players Darra Khan Manganiyar and Ghewar Khan Manganiyar, in addition to vocalists Daya Ram and Anwar Khan Manganiyar, are doing better now than they did earlier. Since we’ve personally experienced the festival in the past few years, their growth story is one to revel in. Earlier, these artists were all clustered and addressed as ‘traditional musicians’. Now their individual identities are emerging with people becoming aware of who the manganiyars, langas, saperas, bhopas, and jogis are. Morchang artist Zakir Langa and Dholak player Saddik Khan Langa are among others who have come a long way.
Year after year, the stage keeps getting bigger, the audience swells in numbers, a greater emphasis on knowledge-sharing is encouraged, and an overall appreciation of their craft is coming about, but what can help in their growth is investment in their skill training. An attempt in this effort was made by Jodhpur RIFF in September 2016 when it introduced its first training camp.
Anwar Khan Manganiyar would sit under a tree and teach students. It was after 40 years that such a camp was being organised and therefore, he wanted to make the most of it. “Maybe we need to provide better facilities but we have to be careful about the approach. We cannot uproot these artistes from their traditional setting,” says the festival director.
The first camp has paved the way for more. Its success could be gauged by all the complaints that came the management’s way. People questioned why their kids weren’t called, why only Manganiyars were made part of it, why not Langas and Meghwals.A big takeaway from the camp for Bhatia and his team was the realisation that separate sessions were required for the proficient and the beginners.
On the positive side, Mehrangarh Museum Trust and HH Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, the chief patron, are considering allocating a budget to work out these camps. If the vision is met with optimism, it could really change the way the next generation of musicians carry forward their traditions.
RIFF’s first training camp on the kamaicha and vocals was organised at Hamira, Jaisalmer, in September 2016. The master musicians were all manganiyars—Ghewar and Darra Khan on Kamaicha and Anwar Manganiyar on vocals. As many as 30 youngsters and eight masters came together to engage symbiotically from a radius of 250-300 km.It was an exercise in allowing the students to learn the kind of practice that worked for them. The next camps—for young masters and for newcomers—are being planned in March and August September 2018. The idea is to hold four to six camps for string instruments. Each would be about seven days, that’ll hopefully connect with 150 people.